‘If I had only a few days left on earth, I would spend one of them inspecting Herdwick tups.’
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The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District – James Rebanks (London: Allen Lane, 2015)
It felt like the whole modern world wanted to rob me of the life I wanted to lead.
James Rebanks gives a full-blooded defense of a way of life that won’t be chivvied into the sometimes pointless pressures and empty efficiencies of mass modernity. He also reveals richness and cultural depth in an older, slower and smaller scale approach; alongside his farming he is an advisor to UNESCO as it seems someone has noticed that the wholesale industrialization of agriculture may lose us more than quaintness and inefficiency.
Rebanks spent much of his school life skiving, sneaking off to work with his father and grandfather in raising Herdwick sheep. By the time he leaves school he can barely write, but then discovers reading in his spare time and takes himself through evening classes to Oxford University. When a professor asks what he thinks of the other students, he comments that ‘they struggled to have different opinions because they’d never failed at anything and been nobodies, and they thought they would always win’ (96-97). He is also lyrical in describing the pride, authenticity and hardships of his way of life and the profound knowledge woven into it.
‘My old man can hardly spell common words, but has an encyclopedic knowledge of landscape. I think it makes a mockery of conventional ideas about who is and who isn’t ‘intelligent.’’ (22)
This is about raising sheep, a rare and particularly hardy breed, and about cultural memory.
‘As long as the work goes on, the men and women that once did it with us live on as well, part of what we are doing, part of our stories and memories, part of how and why we do those things.’ (28)
He also expresses doubts about the quality of much modern life, doubts which aren’t silenced with more goodies or gadgets.
‘It also made me think that modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they couldn’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.’ (96-97)
Rebanks seems to be striking a chord – he has 30,000 Twitter followers and his book, which takes you through a year in the life of a Herdwick breeder, is a Sunday Times bestseller.
‘I have seen the tourism market shift over the last ten years with greater value attached to the culture of places, seen people growing sick of plastic phoniness and genuinely wanting to experience places and people that do different things, believe different things and eat different things. I see how bored we have grown of ourselves in the modern Western world and how people can fight back and shape their futures using their history as an advantage, not an obligation.’ (229)
The sheep have personalities – one ‘has a sense of her own importance at all times’, and some are posers, expecting to be admired like carpet-strutting celebrities at Cannes. Given a good mother, the lambs are almost indestructible in facing a northern winter. You want them and this way of life to prove indestructible, to resist forces ranged against it like blasting snow-storms. The care that goes into maintaining the farm and landscape might not qualify as ‘efficient’, but this doesn’t undermine its value if you take a broader view of value.
‘Some of our friends spend maybe fifty or more days a year rebuilding the walls on their farms, when letting them fall down and selling the stone might be the modern solution. It is done because it should be done.’ (200)
Rebanks wonders whether people ‘see the wall my grandfather built, or care that it stands, or wonder who built it’. If it’s any help, I do look at walls, care that they stand, and wonder who built them, and I doubt I’m alone. It is done because it should be done.
‘Nothing makes sense without reference to what went before, and what comes afterwards.’ (18)
Anyone who has yomped in the north of England, or in Scotland, will warm (or chill) to this image.
Looking onto a snow-speckled garden as I write this.